Rare look at plant that powers the city

Posted: Tuesday, June 20, 2000

A group of Juneau residents got a rare look at the inside of the Snettisham hydroelectric plant south of Juneau on Saturday.

The facility that provides more than 80 percent of the electricity for Juneau is very rarely toured, said Peter Bibb, spokesman for Alaska Electric Light & Power Co., which operates the state-owned plant.

``I'd be happy to do that on a more regular basis,'' Bibb said.

About 70 people paid $100 each to travel by catamaran from Auke Bay more than 30 miles southeast to the head of Speel Arm, where the power plant and a fish hatchery are located. The outing, including a tour of the hatchery run by Douglas Island Pink and Chum, was organized by the Juneau Chamber of Commerce.

Power plant operator Tom Osborn walked the group through the underground facility, which uses water from two lakes to power three generators capable of producing 78 megawatts of electricity. The power is transmitted to a substation in Thane by a 44-mile transmission line that runs along mountainsides and under Taku Inlet.

Alaska Chamber of Commerce President Pam La Bolle said that, having seen Hoover Dam, she was struck by the size of the Snettisham facility.

``It looked very modern -- and compact, is what keeps coming to mind,'' La Bolle said. With only three employees based on-site, the hydroelectric plant is admirably automated, she said. ``It really is just amazing, the technology at work.''

Another person who made the trip to Snettisham was Cleveland Burley, a cement finisher who worked on the power plant, one of the lake tunnels and the hatchery during the construction seasons of 1969-70.


``The powerhouse itself looked nice,'' said Burley, who hadn't been back since. ``It's excellent to know you can look back and say, `Here's something I did 30 years ago.'''

Snettisham, originally a federal project, was purchased by the state in 1998 for $100 million.

AEL&P, an investor-owned utility, reduced its rates about 1.8 percent across the board earlier this year to reflect lower-than-expected costs associated with the state takeover of Snettisham and with the replacement of underwater cables in Taku Inlet.

However, an upcoming application to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska probably will include a rate increase that would offset the temporary reduction, said Steve Crapo, secretary and treasurer for the utility. AEL&P's 12,500 residential customers now pay a usage rate of 8.86 cents per kilowatt hour in the winter and 7.28 cents in the summer, he said.

AEL&P has the option to buy Snettisham in 2003, but Bill Corbus, president of the utility's parent company, said that looks unlikely, as there don't seem to be any rate savings in such a move.

``I don't see that happening in the foreseeable future,'' he said in an interview Monday.

Currently, AEL&P also has small hydroelectric projects at Salmon, Annex and Gold creeks, and uses comparatively expensive diesel fuel for backup generation during outages or dry periods in which water levels are low.

The company is considering a new hydroelectric project at Lake Dorothy, near Taku Inlet, about 15 miles south of downtown Juneau. But that will take an increased consumer demand to make it economical, Corbus said.

Also on the back burner is an extension of service to the Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island and to Hoonah.

That extension would be part of a regional intertie project that began a few years ago with an underwater cable connection between Haines and Skagway. The Greens Creek and Hoonah connections depend in part upon Kennecott Corp., owner of the mine, and Tlingit-Haida Regional Electric Authority, which provides power in Hoonah.

``I think it makes economic sense. What can we sell energy to them for, vs. what does it cost to produce energy on-site?'' Corbus said. ``The second test is, is it finance-able? That's the one that's more difficult.''

Government grants are being sought for the project, he said.

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